by Julia Tong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
As a child born to a Black father and Mexican-American mother, Sonia Kang grew up facing challenges relating to her mixed-race identity. A dark-skinned, curly-haired, Spanish-speaking student with the surname “Smith” in a predominantly Latino school, Sonia recalled facing daily pressure to prove her heritage.
When she married Richard Kang, a first-generation Korean American, the question of how to preserve her children’s multicultural heritage was a prominent concern for both of them.
“We have children who are multiracial and I’m thinking, “Okay, how are we going to make this better for them?” Yes, the world is changing, yes, the numbers are increasing, but they’re still going to face some bumps along the road. I had that experience growing up,” Sonia said at a recent panel discussion.
“Richard and I did a lot of talking about what our home was going to like, what products and what things we brought into the home in order to safeguard their identity. We call that culture proofing our home, where we childproof to protect them from injury and culture proof to protect their identity.”
The Kang family isn’t alone. Interracial marriage has become increasingly common in the United States: today, 17% of new marriages in the United States are interracial, and “mixed race” was the fastest growing demographic category according to the 2020 census. Despite this increased acceptance, however, the recent increase of racism and hate crimes has created a challenging environment for many of those families.
A recent media briefing held by Ethnic Media Services explored these dynamics. Entitled “Interracial Marriage In a Polarized America,” the panel featured the Kangs, alongside other experts and researchers, discussing the importance and complexities of mixed-race couples living in a contentious U.S. society.
Could interracial marriage help an increasingly polarized American society?
To Associate Professor Justin Gest, who studies policy and government at George Mason University, the importance of interracial marriage extends beyond questions of societal taboos or acceptance. Interracial marriage also holds political relevance, bridging racial divides in a country experiencing a major demographic shift.
By 2025, the US is poised to become a majority-minority country—a demographic shift that has, according to Gest, shaped the U.S.’s recent political landscape. Gest points at the 2004 election as an important turning point in this process. In that year, every major racial and ethnic minority in the United States aligned with the Democrats. This created an increasingly homogenous, majority non-Hispanic white Republican party, setting the stage for the intense polarization of the coming decades.
“In many ways, immigration and demographic change is the fulcrum around which our partisan politics revolves these days,” said Gest. “And it is paralyzing us as a country legislatively, and it is dividing people, because our partisan identities are now stacked with our social identity.”
Gest believes governments should ideally prevent these divisive situations to ensure people live harmoniously. However, states are not always incentivized to promote equality and cultivate pluralism. Gest’s research, which looks at other countries that have also undergone major demographic shifts, found that governments often upheld exclusionary boundaries instead, exploiting divisions to win elections.
The alternative he presented: creating connections by forming interpersonal relationships across ideological boundaries.
“One thing that I found in my research that we can do is build relationships across the social divides, across these ethnic and religious boundaries with one another. And there is no relationship I think stronger than that between two spouses,” Gest said.
“Looking at the countries that I’ve studied and across their various histories, when people are intermarrying, it basically disarms the politics of polarization and division.”
Are most Americans open to marrying outside of their own racial or ethnic group?
However, the US has a long way to go until reaching this point. Though public approval of intermarriage between Black and white people specifically has dramatically increased—jumping from 43% in 1993 to 94% in 2021—the research of University of Georgia professor Dr. Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo suggests lingering biases against interracial couples.
In a study of 148 college-aged non-Black participants, a third of participants said they would not personally date, marry, or have a child with a Black person, despite approving others doing so. In a subsequent study, Skinner-Dorkenoo’s team found biases against interracial marriages among both white and Black U.S. residents, but not multiracial residents. Furthermore, contact with interracial couples that were close to the individual, as opposed to exposure to unfamiliar interracial couples, influenced positive perceptions of interracial couples.
Historicizing these results, Skinner-Dorkenoo observed that wealthy white men have maintained their power by creating divisions between various minority groups, closing avenues to solidarity. Recent studies have also suggested that those most invested in upholding social divisions are also likely to be biased against mixed-race couples. A study of 505 white U.S. men, for instance, found that those who most strongly preferred hierarchical social structures and traditional gender norms had the most negative attitudes towards interracial marriage.
However, more research on the subject still needs to be conducted. Not only do studies often pull from small sample sizes, but they also only focus on two groups in the US: Black and white. Furthermore, the majority of interracial marriages in the U.S. involve white people, making the experiences of couples like the Kangs invisible.
“I think [people] see black white. And maybe Asian white. I don’t think they necessarily see Korean, Black, Mexican, kind of as a group,” Sonia Kang said. “That’s kind of common.”
In this environment, the stories of interracial couples like the Kangs are essential to combating a society that would not otherwise recognize them. Aside from recognition, mixed-race couples face challenges from both within and outside of their families. For instance, the couple faced significant opposition from Richard’s family when Richard became engaged to Sonia, straining his relationship with his parents. Though Richard’s parents did come around after the couple had children, the initial difficulties with his parents were stressful for him.
“When you’re at the time, in the in the moment, you feel like you’re you’ve kind of lost your parents,” Richard recalled. “It’s a story that a lot of people can attest to… I didn’t realize it doesn’t have to be a choice, but it felt like I would have to choose between Sonia and my parents. And of course, I chose Sonia and I married her.”
Outside of the family, too, mixed-race couples face structural challenges, from dated sets of federal forms to educators who lack an understanding of multicultural heritages. Ultimately, to Sonia, the potential for mixed-race couples to bridge divides across divisions in America may not be enough to resolve more fundamental social issues in society. Instead, what’s most necessary is listening to the stories of mixed-race people and interracial couples, and enacting structural changes against racism.
“I don’t want it to feel like [interracial or mixed race people are] the savior or the hero,” she said. “I think we have to just continue to work on the cause of racism and continue to have the focus of the conversations around the social structure of race, access to equity, equality and justice.”
“So there’s still work to be done.”
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